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Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory

John Cimprich

Publication Year: 2005

At the now-peaceful spot of Tennessee's Fort Pillow State Historic Area, a horrific incident in the nation's bloodiest war occurred on April 12, 1864. Just as a high bluff in the park offers visitors a panoramic view of the Mississippi River, John Cimprich's absorbing book affords readers a new vantage on the American Civil War as viewed through the lens of the Confederate massacre of unionist and black Federal soldiers at Fort Pillow. Cimprich covers the entire history of Fort Pillow, including its construction by Confederates, its capture and occupation by federals, the massacre, and ongoing debates surrounding that affair. He sets the scene for the carnage by describing the social conflicts in federally occupied areas between secessionists and unionists as well as between blacks and whites. In a careful reconstruction of the assault itself, Cimprich balances vivid firsthand reports with a judicious narrative and analysis of events. He shows how Major General Nathan B. Forrest attacked the garrison with a force outnumbering the Federals roughly 1,500 to 600, and a breakdown of Confederate discipline resulted. The 65 percent death toll for black unionists was approximately twice that for white unionists, and Cimprich concludes that racism was at the heart of the Fort Pillow massacre. Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory serves as a case study for several major themes of the Civil War: the great impact of military experience on campaigns, the hardships of military life, and the trend toward a more ruthless conduct of war. The first book to treat the fort's history in full, it provides a valuable perspective on the massacre and, through it, on the war and the world in which it occurred.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-ix

A high bluff in the Fort Pillow State Historic Area gives visitors a panoramic view of the Mississippi River, but thick forest sharply limits the area visible in much of the park. Most of the time only bird calls and the breeze swishing through the foliage break the silence, for the site lays off the beaten path and does not draw many visitors. ...

Map of Mid-Mississippi Valley

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pp. 1

Map of Fort Pillow in 1864

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pp. 2

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Chapter 1. The Fort’s Beginnings

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pp. 3-13

Before the Civil War, Gideon Pillow ranked as Tennessee’s best known war veteran. Pompously, he often reminded listeners about his extensive combat experience in the Mexican War as a major general, a position gained solely through political connections. After that war he earned great wealth as a lawyer, ...

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Chapter 2. The Federal Attack

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pp. 14-37

Captain Andrew H. Foote, the career navy man who commanded the Federal Mississippi fleet as its flag officer, worried about the strength of Fort Pillow, as described in fairly accurate reports from spies. Furthermore, the recent death of a son had depressed the spirits of the emotional fifty-five-year-old man ...

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Chapter 3. Military Life at the Fort

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pp. 38-48

One of the first Confederates stationed at Fort Pillow wrote that it sat on the Chickasaw Bluff “so high that I have thought many of us would never get nearer to heaven.” The site offered a pleasant campground and beautiful vistas during the warmer part of the year. During winter, though, Private James M. Williams ...

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Chapter 4. The First Federal Garrison

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pp. 49-69

A succession of individual gunboats maintained a weak Federal presence at Fort Pillow during the summer of 1862. After the Confederate evacuation, civilians worried about what the change of government would entail. Secessionists insisted that the populace avoid contact with Federals on the grounds that the conquerors ...

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Chapter 5. The Last Garrison and the Massacre

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pp. 70-85

Major William F. Bradford led a unionist battalion, the misnamed 13th Tennessee Cavalry, to Fort Pillow on February 8, 1864. This intrepid thirty-six-year-old from a politically prominent family may have led a home guard force in Obion County, the state’s northwest corner, before beginning to organize ...

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Chapter 6. The Massacre’s Aftermath

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pp. 86-107

In the morning twilight of April 13, the Silver Cloud, a “tinclad” gunboat similar to the New Era but larger and plated with thin iron armor, traveled toward Fort Pillow. The ship and its interracial crew had left Memphis the previous evening in response to the first report of the attack. A transport loaded with reinforcements ...

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Chapter 7. Public Memory and Fort Pillow

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pp. 108-124

By the end of the war the fort resembled a ghost town. The only indication of life at the otherwise empty site was the small group of entrepreneurs once again operating stores at the steamboat landing. Weeds abounded on the fort’s parade ground, and the fl agpole stood unused. Graves, mostly without headboards, lay scattered about the site. ...

Appendix A: Tables

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pp. 125-129

Appendix B: Compiling Data for Table 7

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pp. 130-132


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pp. 133-166


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pp. 167-184


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pp. 185-193

E-ISBN-13: 9780807139486
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807139189

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War